Re-costing the earth: indigenous governance of reforestation in Southern Mexico

Published: 1 March 2022

University of Glasgow researchers worked in partnership with the local community to understand the impact and uptake of a flagship reforestation programme in Southern Mexico.

Drawing of two people walking through a forest beside a river with the sun shining and the words

In 2019, Mexico launched a flagship reforestation programme, Sembrando Vida, or “Sowing Life” to revitalise the Mexican environment and create a sustainable opportunity to grow the local economy through planting a million hectares of fruit and timber trees.  However, indigenous communities in the country were sceptical of the Sembrando Vida programme and felt they hadn’t been adequately consulted about the process. 

University of Glasgow researchers aimed to gain an insight into the effectiveness of Sembrando Vida by talking to those who were dealing with the programme first-hand, the local communities in Mexico. The research team then worked with these communities to develop a bottom-up approach to maintain local environment and economy in traditional ways. 

Dr Julia McClure, Dr Anna Chadwick of the University of Glasgow and Dr Emma Cardwell of Nottingham Trent University worked in collaboration with researchers based in Chiapas, Mexico, led by public scientific research centre, ECOSUR, to interview different groups on the front line of the Mexican government´s tree planting project about their experiences and insights.

Understanding the challenges

Funding of £55K from the University of Glasgow’s GCRF Small Grants Fund enabled the research team to conduct, translate and transcribe interviews with 16 groups who have first-hand experience of Sembrando Vida. By making contact directly with local communities who are in receipt of the government grants, this was a unique opportunity to understand the Sembrando Vida process and its impacts on indigenous groups. One of the most useful and eye-opening aspects of the findings was the problematics of top-down environmental governance for indigenous communities. 

By giving autonomy and authority to the local communities, the project has highlighted the need for consultation and impact assessments to allow for sustainable development goals and democratic commitments to be met in complex political and cultural terrains.

Plan of life

The original research project was expanded when the indigenous peoples and communities of the Lacandon jungle began to design their own Plan of life (Plan de Vida). Supported by the Glasgow researchers, the ECOSUR team worked to produce an instrument of social, environmental, cultural, and economic policy of the original peoples of the Communal Assets of the Lacandon Zone.

Created as a model of their own development, as well as a model of life for the coexistence of all beings in the territory from the jungle.

The research assistants carried out two training camps with the peasants of the Lacandon region on the implications of a biocultural development.

Balancing change, culture & tradition

The discussions from the workshops led to the production of the Plan of Life report which will help inform other communities across Southern Mexico interested in developing bottom-up strategies for agroecology. Four videos, based upon the collaborative research have also been produced to help the dissemination of the agroecological knowledge contained in the Plan of Life.

Dr Julia McClure explains; “At COP26, the Mexican government announced the plan to scale-up the Sembrando Vida tree planting programme which has been hailed as a victory for reducing carbon emissions. However, our work has consulted with communities to map the problems of Sembrando Vida, and produced a Plan of Life, which sets out local community visions for their long-term plan to conserve local ecologies and histories.”

The research team intends to submit future grant applications to extend this research into government-led tree planting projects and their impact on traditional agroecological systems and historical knowledge to include other parts of Latin America and Asia.

Key Facts

  • In 2019, the Mexican government launched the agroforestry, agroecology and biodiversity programme ‘Sembrando Vida’.
  • A £55K SFC Global Challenges Research Fund grant enabled University of Glasgow researchers to work with local communities and non-governmental groups to investigate the impacts of Sembrando Vida on indigenous and peasant communities.
  • The collaboration has created the development of ‘Plan of Life’ (plan de Vida), to protect traditional bottom-up forms of agroecological practices and local governance of resources.

First published: 1 March 2022